MAYOR KURT Schmoke has been actively spreading the word about his plans for making Baltimore a more livable city, and explaining how the $100 million in Empowerment Zone funding will help this effort.
For years, the government has thrown money at problems in poor communities with very limited success. This time officials say things will be different: The Empowerment Zone money will be used to help develop jobs. That's a laudable goal since a chief cause of poverty is unemployment. But I'd like to see city officials go beyond finding remedies for joblessness and concentrate too on the inner-city infrastructure that helps to foster crime, drug addiction, anti-social behavior and poverty.
Two examples that immediately come to mind are corner liquor stores and check-cashing operations -- two types of businesses that have proliferated in recent years in inner cities.
Such businesses make it easier for the drug culture to thrive, experts say.
For example, Dr. Thomas LaVeist, a medical sociologist at the Johns Hopkins School of Hygiene and Public Health, for several years now has been saying that the large number of package liquor stores in poor black neighborhoods encourages alcoholism, drug use and crime.
In his research, Dr. LaVeist has found that taverns are the predominant mode of liquor sales in poor white communities. They provide a place where a customer can buy a beer, socialize and drink it on the premises. Such folks are considered "community builders" to some extent. Moreover, consumption is limited both by the bartender and by the expense of purchasing beer or liquor by the drink.
In contrast, corner liquor stores, which by law prohibit consumption of alcohol on or near the premises, are the predominant outlets for liquor sales in poor African-American communities, Dr. LaVeist notes. Among the most popular items at such stores are 40- and 64-ounce bottles of beer or malt liquor, which encourage the consumption of large quantities of alcohol.
Liquor stores also aid the illegal drug trade by providing ideal locations for drug dealers to loiter, looking for clientele, according to Dr. LaVeist. In a recent interview with the Gazette, Johns Hopkins University's weekly newspaper, Dr. LaVeist said some key things necessary for an open-air drug market are a pay phone, an escape route (alleyways) and a reason to stand around (liquor stores).
Loitering and the many alleyways that provide easy escape in Baltimore also contribute to purse-snatchings, hold-ups and petty thefts.
Unlike liquor stores, check-cashing businesses are seen by many as respectable businesses that one should welcome to inner cities where there are few banks. They offer such services lTC as check cashing (for a percentage of the face value), post office boxes, public transportation passes, Western Union services, money orders and lottery ticket sales. Many of these businesses have signs in the windows that scream "No I.D. required." Is that an invitation to thieves wanting to cash stolen checks?
Check-cashing businesses also appear to hire fewer employees than banks, thus limiting the potential for economic growth in poor communities. Usually, two or three tellers operate such businesses. Since no accounts are maintained, there is no need for bookkeepers, auditors, data processors, etc. By contrast, even a small bank branch usually has two or three tellers, one or two security guards and two or three customer-service representatives and other support staff.
Could the Empowerment Zone directors possibly offer incentives for banks to return to poor communities? Certainly, check-cashing operations would not stay around long if they had to compete with full-service banks that would not charge customers for such basic services as check cashing.
Once he completes his research, if Dr. LaVeist can show a strong correlation between the existence of corner liquor stores and community crime statistics, I would hope that the evidence would be used by state and local officials to make changes in the inner city. Then work could begin on ridding some of these components that foster chaos in communities.
It may turn out that some concrete steps -- such as better lighting in our alleyways and a reduction in certain types of
businesses -- would be a cost-effective way to reduce crime and make our communities more livable.
We have already proven that throwing money at such problems doesn't solve them. Perhaps, an overhaul of the infrastructure of poor neighborhoods would.
5) Nola N. Krosch writes from Baltimore.